I think I’m a pretty positive guy. I try to look on the bright side of things. I only say that because I don’t anything to think of this as a gripe. It is merely a chance to share my unique work situation.
Here in Korea, the school year starts at the beginning of March, so I have just finished the first couple weeks of school. And I am very glad about that. I know a lot of people don’t like going back to school (students especially), but there are several unique factors for a foreign English teacher in my position that makes the first week of school a lot less fun.
1. Getting to school
I don’t have a car. If I did, this would not be an issue. I do have a motorbike and the bus system here is very good, but still, it takes a while to get everything straightened out.
I live in a city of about 600,000, but I work in the countryside around the city, which means I can’t walk to my schools. In times past, some of the teachers would pick us foreigners up, but they usually don’t like doing that anymore, and honestly, I don’t like getting picked up. Even if I have to take a bus, I like to be independent. I can ride my motorbike to two of my schools (I work at four different schools) because they’re relatively close, unless of course it’s pouring rain or a blizzard or the bike’s broken. In other words I have to know how to get to all my schools by bus.
Unfortunately, all of my schools are in different directions and I have to transfer buses to all of them, so I have to coordinate two bus schedules to make sure I get to the transfer stop before the second bus gets there. All this for four different schools which start at different times. I ended up being to late to one school and having to take a taxi to another one the first day in order not to be late.
2. People assuming I don’t know anything
I’ve lived in Korea for nine years and have taught public school here for five years so I pretty much know what’s going on. I speak the language, can use chopsticks, know the bus system, and everything else you need to survive. But I’m not Korean, so everyone naturally (or not) assumes I got off the plane yesterday. I don’t necessarily blame them, since there is a high turnover rate for foreign English teachers and so a lot of us are fresh off the plane. Still, the first day or two at a new school is invariably the same.
“Can you use chopsticks?” “Oh, I think that food is too spicy for you.” “Oh wow, you can speak Korean!” “Do you know how to take the bus? You do? Wow, how do you know?”
And so on. Again, I’m not trying to criticize the Korean teachers, but it does get tiring when you go through the same routine again and again and again.
3. Not knowing anything
Even though I know a lot about Korea and public schools in general, every new school I go to has its own idiosyncrasies, for one reason or another. One of my schools is built like someone found the plans to the Labyrinth, thought that looked too straightforward and kicked it up a notch. Schools all start at different times, one has lunch after three periods instead of four. Some have English classes in an English room; others in the classrooms. In other words, I do some wandering around sometimes, asking people a lot of questions like where the bathrooms are and what the password to the class computer is.
One of my schools. It looks straightforward, but it’s best to hire a Sherpa if you have class in one of the far buildings.
4. Introduction class
In elementary schools in Korea, there are no classes on the first day. The homeroom teachers are getting to know their students and getting them to color name tags or doing other icebreaker activities, so I don’t have to teach. In middle school, there are classes on the first day, but the teachers don’t want to start the textbook, so they say some variation of, “Just introduce yourself today.”
How long does it take to introduce yourself? Not the whole 45-minutes of class, that’s for sure. Even if I show them the Introduction to my Hometown powerpoint that I have, it only takes five minutes. Now I have been teaching long enough that I come prepared to get the kids talking and fill up the period but it tends to be awkward and I do the same lesson over and over again. I’m not complaining, but I’m always happy when the first week is over so I can get into real teaching.